Live album capture’s Duende Project’s strengths
Live albums are a tricky business: The pristine intention of what the music is supposed to sound like gives way to messy reality of what actually happened. That’s not always a good thing, as every flaw’s exposed, every imperfection glares. Sometimes, though, the recording can catch a bit of a live recording’s magic, the ineffable quality that makes a band worth seeing live, the thing that’s difficult to explain. “The Duende Project Live at AS220” is one of those albums. It’s raw at points, but it captures some of the music-andpoetry ensemble's magic.
The band, fronted by Worcester poet Tony Brown along with bassist Steven Lanning-Cafaro, guitarist Chris Lawton and drummer Chris O’Donnell, plays an every-other-week residency at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant in Worcester, with the next show being Nov. 18, and although it’s been a fixture on both the local music and poetry scenes for a while, it seems there’s a bit of a misperception as to its nature. The Duende Project is not a neo-beat hepcat jazz project, although there’s a good deal of jazz structure in the music, particularly the percussion, nor is it an airy acoustic ‘60s throwback (although it has a number of gentler pieces in its repertoire.) No, at its core, The Duende Project is a rock band, and nowhere is that more apparent than on this album, recorded in May at the Providence music venue, AS220.
The album’s playlist mostly comprises arrangements of Brown’s most famous poems, beginning with “Snakes On A Plane,” written in the giggly lead-up to the Samuel L. Jackson movie. Here, it’s a raucous punk song, with Brown bellowing the lines with a mix of force and black humor. There’s a jocular humor to the poem, belying its more serious underlying subject matter, aging and suicide. “Because the way I see it,” says Brown, “whatever bites me, bites me/ whatever kills me, kills me … and if there are (Samuel L.
Jackson-inflected expletive) on this (expletive) plane/ well (expletive) please/at least I’m flying.” There’s a darkness in the poem, which is contrasted both by the humor and the performance, as well as a sidewinder blues guitar line which seems to ground the whole thing. By contrast, Brown’s paranoialaden “Conspiracy” is cast as a reggae song, which seems to amplify the poem’s more absurdist conspiracy theory rantings: “There’s an order out there,” says Brown, “and I need to see it.
Just like Elvis did.” The bass and drums seem to create an undertow that pulls against Brown’s titanic recitation.
But it’s with the third piece, “Funk 101,” and the following “Trinity Tango,” that you really get a chance See INFANTE, D2
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to hear what the band is made of. “Funk 101” begins as a poem expounding on the nature of the musical style, accented by the pulse of a Nile Rodgers-style guitar, and then gives way to a breathtaking instrumental jam, one that builds to a fever pitch before Brown reclaims the microphone. “Trinity Tango,” written for the Worcestershot movie “Trinity,” is indeed a tango, and it echoes the suicidal musings of “Snakes on a Plane,” complete with the dog imagery, and with the same underlying sense of defiance. It’s different here, though, in large part because of the music’s more elaborate structure, but also because that defiance seems to be a bit more finely tempered. “’C'est tout, c'est tout’ that’s French for ‘That’s all,’” sings Brown, (and the chorus here is actually sung. “‘Basta, basta’/ Italian for enough.” At one point in the poem, Brown refers to the refrain as “his one good spell.” There’s a darkness in the line, but also a paradoxical strength. The drum-driven bonfire threatened earlier ignites in full force here, as O’Donnell lets loose on a spectacular drum solo.
Both here and as a solo poet, Brown has never been reluctant to go to uncomfortable places as a writer, and while his poems are not always strictly autobiographical, they do always resound with an emotional honesty. Still, there’s a noticeable difference when the performance of the poem is more integrated into the music, as it is on the album’s first few numbers, then when the dynamic shifts and becomes more of a traditional poetbacked- by band, as happens on “By the Numbers.” This is perhaps the most traditional performance of a poem, but given its subject matter of shootings and violence, the spare adornment seems a wise choice, letting the words, delivered gently, take center stage.
The album ends with what Brown describes as two poems about lessons he learned from punk rock, “DIY” and “Punk.”
The former is a more gentle poem than one might expect, ruminating on spirituality and people living their lives and defying expectations in small ways, all heightened by the band’s blues-laden Novocain fuzz instrumentation. One might even wonder what this beautiful, intense poetic presentation has to do with punk rock at all, until Brown hits the end: “The arms of God are nearly endless —/but there you hang out at the end of one of them,/like a finger on a vast hand …. So — make a living./Make a life. Make love. Make art./Adorn this world with the work of your soul. But —/Do it yourself.
No one/can do it/for you.”
With that ethos — a linchpin of punk rock — firmly in mind, the album closes on a ferocious rendition of the aptly named “Punk,” a song filled with fire and fury as Brown reminisces about the power and magic. Brown is shouting by the end as the band barrels forward with reckless abandon: “Because someone somewhere/is still trying to find out how far the human soul can go,” he shouts, “on three chords tuned to exhaustion/ wet sex in a van/the roar of the crowd/and most of all on the joy that comes/when you spit all the outrage and triumph in you into the face of death/as you realize that it’s you – you – YOU/YOU did it/ YOU stripped the emperor/ and crumpled his vanity.”
It’s a brutal, electrifying performance, and in that moment, you’re right there with the poet, in a space where everything is possible and no one’s hands are clean.
Email Victor D. Infante at Victor.Infante@Telegram. com and follow him on Twitter @ocvictor.
The Duende Project will perform Nov. 18 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, 124 Millbury St., Worcester.